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A fight ahead for Sterling, Silver

Donald Sterling began his professional life as a personal-injury and divorce lawyer, and he is no stranger to taking on cases that other attorneys would find too distasteful to touch.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. (Richard Drew/AP)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. (Richard Drew/AP)Read more

Donald Sterling began his professional life as a personal-injury and divorce lawyer, and he is no stranger to taking on cases that other attorneys would find too distasteful to touch.

He has created just such a case for himself in the matter of Sterling v. World, the upshot of a recorded conversation between Sterling and his multiracial mistress in which the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a noted employer of blacks, reveals that he's really not all that fond of such folks.

The story is a lot more complicated than that - any story that also includes an aggrieved wife's suing the mistress for the $1.8 million in gifts and favors bestowed by the hubby is plenty complicated - but that's the heart of the tale. Sterling, who has been sort of a dottering dirtbag for years, was gotcha'd by an angry girlfriend and is suffering the consequences as meted out Tuesday by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

There's a lot we still don't know. We don't know whether Sterling was drunk or was goaded into the conversation by someone who had the recorder running and was intent on putting away some bankable evidence for another time. (The recording was reportedly made seven months ago.)

What we do know, however, is enough to render a judgment on Sterling. What he said was reprehensible - drunk, sober, or entrapped - and can't be tolerated. Worse yet, it was bad for business.

The NBA studied the situation for two days before Silver walked out and handed down the death sentence. Sterling can't go to games, practices, or the office. He can't handle any of the business dealings of the franchise. The commissioner will ask the other owners to kick him out of the club, forcing Sterling, the longest-tenured owner in the NBA, to sell the team and disappear.

It was a harsh sentence, but not a difficult one for Silver to deliver. He was congratulated for strong action, and anybody who thinks he overstepped must be a racist, too. Everyone in the NBA hierarchy, including Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who previously worried about the "slippery slope" of ejecting unpopular owners, fell into line and joined the applause.

That's fine as far as it goes, and the NBA would hardly miss the presence of Sterling, who has made a lot of money with business practices that grind down the civil rights of minorities, but any expectation that Sterling will take his whupping and leave is overly optimistic. The man is 80 years old, worth nearly $2 billion, is a fantastic egotist, and did we mention he cut his teeth chasing ambulances down the block? Shaming Donald Sterling is not an afternoon's work.

Sterling has five days to respond to the commissioner. He will certainly find himself in a legal bind, since the NBA constitution virtually forces owners to sign away their litigation rights when judged by their peers to have screwed up the business in a dreadful financial or ethical way. Ted Stepien, briefly the owner of the Cavaliers, was encouraged to sell his team after nearly bankrupting it with terrible personnel decisions and his stated belief that half the roster should be Caucasian to attract fans.

That is an obstacle, but it is unlikely to keep Sterling from fighting back. He knows the commissioner's actions were at least partially motivated by the bad publicity that caused some team sponsors to flee. He also knows that the league didn't do anything when he was the subject of a Department of Justice investigation into his systematic unwillingness to rent residential properties to blacks and Latinos.

The commissioner was asked about that, something along the lines of: "It's a little late to start getting religion about this guy, isn't it?" Silver said there was no finding of liability in that previous case - or in several other discrimination suits brought against Sterling and settled out of court - so the league couldn't do anything, which is hogwash. Sterling still put the NBA in an unsavory light, but there wasn't the same accompanying bad publicity, so the league let it slide.

Where the NBA is vulnerable - if that is its position on the past - is that Sterling hasn't been convicted of a crime this time, either, aside from the crime of being a backward cretin. If that were prosecutable, you couldn't build enough jails in this country. And further, Sterling will argue that the context of what happened was private and had nothing to do with his business or how it is run.

He might not be able to win, but $2 billion will buy a whole lot of billable hours for his legal staff, and this thing and the bad publicity Silver and the NBA want to quash could drag on for years. Will the other NBA owners really stay in line and strip Sterling of a holding worth $700 million if they think he might prevail and then sting them for monstrous damages?

It's an interesting question, and like the entire matter, there is no precedent to use as a guide. What we know is that this is all about public perception, and that nothing could be of less interest to Donald Sterling. He will fight.

Silver needs 22 out of 29 votes to answer that fight and back up his strong announcement on Tuesday. He said he will get the votes. He said it out loud, and everyone recorded it. That's been known to backfire, of course.